THE BLOG
05/24/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013

Democratic Legislators: Making Veterans a Priority Every Day

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It was former Labor Secretary Robert Reich who said, "True patriotism isn't cheap. It's about taking on a fair share of the burden of keeping America going."

This weekend we honor the American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, but our policymakers need to be working every day to ensure that when soldiers return home that their service, training, and sacrifice is honored as well.

As a country, we must face the disturbing reality that too many returning veterans eventually find themselves on the street. A 2011 survey found that nearly one in seven homeless adults are veterans. For some veterans, it is the result of undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions, including PTSD; for others, it is simply a reflection of hard times and lack of support networks upon returning home. Regardless, this statistic represents tens of thousands of men and women who stood up when asked to serve, and it is our responsibility as a nation to now stand up for them.

Democratic legislators are heeding that call. The Minnesota legislature, now with Democratic majorities, has put real resources into addressing the difficult issue of homeless veterans -- approving $33 million in funding for housing and homelessness-prevention programs, which will benefit the chronic homeless and homeless veterans.

Cathy ten Broeke, founder of a Minnesota state Interagency Council on Homelessness, said, "I think we could be the first state to end homelessness among veterans."

Of course, it is in the best interest of all of us to make sure that veterans never become homeless in the first place. However, unemployment for post-9/11 veterans is above nine percent. This figure is especially disheartening because veterans learn unique and applicable skills while serving that, all too often, state bureaucracies do not recognize when they return.

Democrats are facing this issue head on, as well. Maryland's Democratic House Speaker Michael Busch, with the support of his colleagues, passed legislation ensuring that veterans entering the civilian workforce "get credit for their military training, education, and experience."

In addition, this new law will require Maryland's public institutions of higher education "to develop and implement policies for awarding academic credit for relevant military training and education; and establishes an expedited licensing procedure for veterans, service members, and military spouses who relocate to Maryland and hold an occupational or professional licensure in another state."

In addition to making sure that veterans get full credit for their training, Democrats are also working to ensure veterans have access to higher education opportunities.

Wisconsin Rep. Dianne Hessbein (D-Middleton) has introduced legislation to "allow veteran students first priority when registering for classes at schools within the University of Wisconsin System."

According to Rep. Hessbein, the legislation addresses a very real issue facing veterans, who "often have difficulty finishing school while they are still eligible for veteran-based funding, which usually expires after four years."

"Veterans have served our country and made personal sacrifices many of us can only imagine; they have earned this added measure of support from our public university system," Hesselbien said about the legislation.

While Democrats across the country are putting money and policy priorities behind veterans, some Republicans remain content to simply leave veterans behind.

In Alaska, home to one of the nation's greatest concentrations of younger veterans, Senate Democrats proposed amendments to the state's budget to reinstate funding to help the Alaska National Guards enroll in classes at universities; to provide assistance to veterans in navigating the federal bureaucracy so they can draw down the benefits they have earned; and to fund a cemetery dedicated to Alaska's service men and women.

The new Republican majority in the Alaska Senate responded by voting each of these proposals down.

But Senate Republicans did find money to pass a $6 billion tax giveaway to the oil industry, over the objection of Senate Democrats who supported a far more reasonable package of incentives.

"We barely batted an eye giving away $6 billion to the oil industry, so I thought another $300,000 to support those who guard our freedom a worthy investment," stated Senator Bill Wielechowski (D-East Anchorage.)

And Democrats are fighting to make sure that all veterans, including LGBT veterans, receive equal benefits for equal service.

Despite the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, there remains lingering injustice from the days when we discharged qualified men and women from the armed forces because of their sexual orientation.

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation authored by Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) that "reinstates California veterans benefits rescinded due to a discharge based solely on sexual orientation."

This year Democrats in Connecticut followed suit, passing legislation to restore state benefits to "gay and lesbian veterans discharged under the military's former Don't Ask Don't Tell policy."

Supporting our veterans is not cheap; it involves a real investment in both policy and budget priorities. But our veterans put our country first and stepped up, and on this Memorial Day, state legislators of both parties need to be standing up for veterans with real resources as well.

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